Native North America: The Eastern Woodlands and The Plains


Exhibition Photograph of Navajo Sandpainters at the  Indian Art of the United States Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, March 26, 1941 (photo by

Native art was very influential on many of the artistic movements of the 20th century, including Abstract Expressionism. Many of the objects found in museum collections and shown in college classrooms are out of context with respect to their original cultural and ceremonial meaning, which is an important port with regards to understanding Native culture. All cultural systems exist in a constant state of change due to both internal and external forces. Tradition in both culture and art is relative. Tradition is as much based on technique and materials as technology. Changes in technique or tools and substitution or addition of foreign materials do not necessarily alter the total traditional aspect of an object. Conventional designs derive from and relate to technical basis, and are often provided with meanings after creation. They are a deliberate attempt to relate realistic form with another aesthetic tradition. Native American art was rich and diverse. Dress, including body decoration and clothing, was the most important vehicle for artistic expression.


Map of the General Culture Zones of North America

The Eastern Woodlands major borders are the Mississippi River and the Atlantic, the Gulf and up into Canada. This is a very resource rich land. Tattooing was widely practiced, and represented guardian spirits in addition to marking gender and personal beautification. These were settled communities with sophisticated political and religious bands. Trade routes linked all regions.

Aesthetic approaches remained fundamental for over 2000 years, including figure-ground relationships and rounded, organic forms with relatively naturalistic approach to representation. The Archaic Period (8000-1000 BCE) sees earthworks built at sites that often coordinated trade. These required soil to be brought from designated sites.


Archaic Period, Bannerstone (photo By National Park Service –, Public Domain,

Bannerstones, which weighted atlatls, were carved of exotic imported stones to exploit natural characteristics.  Many of the groups from the Woodlands periods (1000 BCE – 700/1000CE) built large earthworks, or monumental forms built of mounded dirt, immense undertakings that required a comprehensive vision of the planners and a communal investment of time.The Hopewell culture (300/100 BCE – 600 CE), the late Woodlands period, has core sites in the Ohio River Valley. Geometric earthworks defined with embankment mounds that surrounded ceremonial sites. These were linked with roads and long embankment mounds that also surround conical burial mounds of elites who were buried with imported goods. Pure copper was pounded into sheets and formed into various objects that were then embossed and sanded with precision and efficiency.  The Serpent Mound in Ohio, originally thought to date from the Adena culture (1000/800-1 BCE), in the early Woodlands period, because of 3 conical mounds nearby, is now dated to the Mississippian period (1000-1500/1600), c. 1070. This mound has a coiled tail at one end and a mouth filled with an oval shape at the end, and possible represents the sun in eclipse (life renewal) or a comet. It is ¼ mile long, the longest surviving effigy mound in America. The Mississippian culture built in the river valleys, with a major site at Cahokia, the largest ancient North American urban center at 6 square miles with a population peak at about 20,000. This period was characterized by extensive cultivation of corn. The sun represented the ultimate spiritual power from which political authority and sustenance are derived. There was a trade with Mesoamerica, in which goods and ideology are exchanged. There were several types of earthworks at the site within the palisaded central area. The Monks Mound is the largest, and was renewed in several stages to reach a height of 100 feet with 4 terraces. It was the largest pre-contact structure in Native North America. The mounds had wooden buildings at the top. The entire site reflected Mesoamerican space planning, with axial alignment, cardinal orientation, and plaza-mound sequence. The city in Mississippian culture reflected the center of the political, social and religious network. Ideas were encoded visually on shell, clay and copper, forming the basis of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, which had an elaborate iconographic tradition. The most common item was the gorget, a pendant suspended on a cord that was passed through 2 perforations near the edge. These were socially restricted, and defined group affiliations. Gorgets were generally made from shell or clay with symbolic patterns and images engraved on them, and were generally circular in shape with linear designs. Maces, or scepters of power, as well as cosmological maps were carved, and represented the intervention of humans to entreat and manipulate the powers of the upper and lower realms. Relics of high-status ancestors were venerated. Chunkey was a game played possibly for divination. Most Mississippian sites were abandoned pre-contact. There were complementary themes of passivity, harmony and sustenance with aggression, conflict and conquest. Male hunter-warriors were generally represented as 2-d, and female mother cultivators were generally in 3-d and freestanding.

Hopewell, Copper Ornament in the Shape of a Bird and Mica Hand (photo By Uyvsdi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and Public Domain,


Mississippian, Great Serpent Mound, c. 1070 (photo By No machine-readable author provided. OUBoy~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Missippian, Cahokia site drawing and Monks Mound, (photos By Heironymous Rowe – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, and By Herb Roe, CC BY-SA 3.0,


Map of the 5 Confederated Tribes (photo By R.A. Nonenmacher-w:Image:Iroquois 5 Nation Map c 1650.png, Public Domain,

The Iroquois were a confederacy that was in power from the 15th through the end of the 18th centuries. The Iroquois confederacy, which was said to be one of the models for the Federal Government, was made up of the Seneca, who guarded the Western door of the Longhouse, the Cayuga, the Onondaga, the Oneida, and the Mohawk, who guarded the eastern door of the Longhouse. The Tuscarora joined in 1722-3. Wampum were shell beads that were strung in designs that signify certain contractual agreements. These were regarded as legal transactions, and the abstract and pictographic designs were formed with patterns of purple and white beads. The display and recitation of the wampum reminded the parties of the agreement. The body was an important space for visual artistic expression through clothing and body decoration.


Iroquois, Wampum commemorating the Confederacy (photo By Unknown – Popular Science Monthly Volume 28, Public Domain,


Ojibwa, Bandolier Bag, c. 1900 (photo The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Bags were created in the Great Lakes region with images of manitos, or guardian spirits, and later with elaborate floral designs that combined the Native belief in the sacredness of the vegetation with the European Christian belief that flowers were the epitome of god’s beauty in creation. The Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society of the Great Lakes, was a society of shamans dedicated to prolonging life and the accomplishment of a safe journey to the after world. This spread, and saw much innovation in the 17th century. Scrolls were incised with animals and anthropomorphic beings, and were mnemonic aids that codified the society’s oral traditions and ritual procedures.  In the 20th century, the Anishnabe returned to the style to reinforce the continuation of tradition.


Seminole, Big Shirts, 1920 and 1936 (photo By Daderot – Daderot, CC0,

African-American slaves mixed with native Creeks and Muscogees who fled to Spanish Florida to avoid forced relocation by the American government. These groups mixed Euro-American patchwork techniques with African-American cloth appliqué traditions to form the Seminole and Muccosukee patchwork tradition. This was a brightly hued textile tradition that was originally hand-stitched, but became more innovative through sewing machines and the economic stimulation of tourism. In most indigenous areas, there was a post-contact reliance on a mixed economic base partially related to tourism and the sale of art to tourists.


Map of the Plains Culture Area

The Plains represents the last indigenous tradition before the acculturation process of the Reservation Era. This area stretched from Canada to the Mexican border in Texas, and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Many of the people migrated from the Eastern Woodlands, Great Lakes area, and the Great Basin region. The horse culture grew up from about 1700-1870. Most of the peoples on the Plains were involved in extensive pre-contact trade. The exception to this are the Mandan and Hidatsa who lived on the Plains for about 1000 years. These were sedentary people who lived in earth lodges.

George Catlin, Mandan Village, c. 1833 and Ma-to-toh-pe, or the Mandan Chief Four Bears, c. 1833 (photo Public Domain, and By George Catlin, Public Domain,

Walter McClintock, Buffalo Tipi on the left, Snake tipi on the right, Star Tipi in center and Blackfoot, Two Women inside Tipi, early 20th century (photo By Beinecke Library – Buffalo tipi on left, Snake tipi on right, Star tipi in back center. 812, CC BY 2.0, and By Beinecke Library – Two women inside tipi. Y-1515, CC BY 2.0,

Bates, Kiawa (sic) Indian Girls in Buckskin Dress, 1913 and F.A. Rinehart, In Summer Kiowa, 1898 (photo By SMU Central University Libraries –, No restrictions, and By BPL – In Summer, KiowaUploaded by Fæ / Upload cutting by –Kürschner (talk) 08:54, 8 December 2012 (UTC), CC BY 2.0,

Most of the other Plains groups were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in tipis. Much of the art is both portable and personally emblematic. Buffalo skin was the primary artistic medium. Art was used to publicize personal accomplishments, with the expression of personal identity and achievement through adornment of oneself and possessions one of the most important functions of art. Items were generally derived from or modeled upon the natural world. Clothing also revealed cosmological concerns and secular hierarchies. Men generally painted in a figurative style, while women painted in a more geometric style, and did all of the quill- and beadwork. The narrative style recorded both personal and military accomplishments as well as visionary experiences. Women tanned the hides, and decorated them with geometric and semi-abstract designs. Co-operation was important, with both quillwork and tipi-making organized in guilds.  Quillwork was considered sacred. The exchange of quill- and bead-work was central to maintaining relations among neighboring groups. Styles were assimilated across wide areas. Women’s fine artistic achievements were equivalent to counting coup, and the finished object was less important than the process of making it in the religiously prescribed manner. Beads were often used alongside quillwork, and replaced quillwork in many regions. War exploits and autobiographical episodes as well as personal dream and vision imagery embellished tipis, and were personal property also painted on shields. Narrative painting was done in a flat, semi-abstract style. In the 19th century, ledger art became important, and combined traditional scenes with chronicles of changing lives. Lakota costume pre-reservation was a graphic communication that reinforced the rules and the positions of its societal members. Women produced the majority of clothing. They were skilled in beadwork and quillwork which provided status to themselves and their families. Clothing was a personal identifier.

Sioux Ghost Dance Film from 1894 (credit By William Heise [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The period around the year 1880 is the beginning of the reservation period, which ended the warrior culture, buffalo hunts, and the Sun Dance as the primary religious institution. The native groups were forced to farm and assimilate. In this period, the Ghost Dance, begun around 1889 by the Paiute prophet Wovoka, rose up as a messianic cult that aimed to restore Native culture. The Ghost Dance costume was a form of rebellion against white products and protection against the enemy, especially military bullets.


Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty and Juanita Growing Thunder Fogarty,  Give Away Horses Dress, 2006 (photo By Andrew Kuchling (Flickr: Give Away Horses dress) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Women in the Reservation Era maintained cultural traditions through elaborately beaded costumes with increased complexity of pattern, complete beading, the incorporation of new forms, and the inclusion of pictorial imagery in a delicate, nervous line with complex compositions of geometric elements. The beaded moccasin was the foremost symbol of ethnic identity. Both the upper and the sole were fully beaded. Cowhide or cloth begins to be used instead of buckskin, and the fully beaded vest appears as a clothing form for men. Pre-reservation, the representational forms were the exclusive prerogative of men, but after, in an endeavor to maintain the tradition of recording historic events and life, women bead representational scenes. The heavily beaded costumes were produced throughout the twenties.


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